“Let’s go take my daddy out of that place. I miss him why is he there?”
These were the words of a three-year-old Dana whose father had just been detained to be deported.
The mother, Mireya, says the little girl cried every night, saying she wanted her father home and was confused as to why he was in there in the first place, demanding that he is brought home to her. The mother says on one visit to the detention facility, the daughter asked her to break the glass, unbeknown to the child that she would probably never see her father free any time soon.
“I just want to hug my daddy.”
In Southwest Detroit, stories like these nothing short of unfamiliar.
According to a study by Data Driven Detroit, the population in the area was 43,902 as of 2010, a big part of it made up by Hispanics/Latinos. The sharp increase in this population in the last 20 years has been one that has been welcomed with flourishing accomplishments but also threats of discrimination and inequality.
“To see the pain that these families have to face, especially the children, it reminds me of why we do what we do,” says Adonis Flores, board member at Michigan United, a non-profit organization that specializes in aiding those who have been victims of deportation, discrimination and work inequality. “And honestly it isn’t just the fact these families are torn apart. It trickles down later on other things even long after this is done.”
Flores says that because of some of the legislature that has been passed in the state of Michigan, such as the implementation of what was considered “legally present” to hold a driver’s license in 2007-2008, problems were created for those who were undocumented workers. Their fear of being deported made them vulnerable to poverty because of unfair and unethical practices at places of employment and not being able to speak up, he says.
“I do think the Latino community,especially the undocumented, face extreme poverty due to exploitation at work because they are not allowed to work,” says Adonis Flores, board member at Michigan United, a non-profit organization that specializes in aiding those who have been victims of work inequality.
Cases like these are much more common than people would imagine, says Flores.
The undocumented community, not just in Southwest Detroit but nationwide, has been the target of exploitation due to factors such as lack of English and no form of identification or rights. Companies who used staffing agencies, he says, were a major culprit because they didn’t have to take responsibility due to workers being under the agencies and not the actual company.
Flores says the most vulnerable population was mothers.
“During time that I worked at a temp agency, we always started minimum wage, which was $7.40 at the time. Most of the people there were mothers, a great number of them single mothers whose husbands had been deported, “he says. “You can imagine a single mother raising a family on $7.40 an hour. It’s not going to happen.”
Because of their legal status, Flores said, these women were also disqualified from receiving any sort of government assistance.
“This really put a squeeze on their situation, which in turn lead them to not speak up. Their wages would get stolen, and most of them would have to work two jobs to make ends meet,” he says.
Flores, who himself worked at a temp agency when he was undocumented, says that he felt that as a man he felt he was more at an advantage that women in his position because there were more jobs available for him, such as construction jobs, that would usually turn women down due to the rigorous physical demands the job required.
“It was still hard because sometimes I would only work once or twice a week, and sometimes they demanded I go out of state which if I wanted to go to school wouldn’t work for me,” he says.
Flores says during his time working in roofing, he was fortunate to not have had a bad experience with the employer. He says the company was unionized and had good benefits. He says the only part in which he felt exploited at this job was when at one point instead of a roofer he was assigned as a safety monitor, in which he didn’t receive any of the benefits the union members had because he was undocumented.
“Money was good, but I didn’t have healthcare. But I was able to meet ends meet and pay off my student debt,” he says.
School itself, Flores says, was hard to finish with the out-of-state tuition that was being charged to him due to his legal status.
“It’s very discouraging, especially to people who were in my situation, knowing you may not graduate within the regular time frame due to lack of money,” he says. “Thankfully I had a supportive family who helped me through it.”
Flores says he decided to switch jobs to a staffing agency after he realized that the traveling required would not work out for him when construction jobs within the state were limited and also because he wanted to continue school.
“It was the same here, started off at minimum wage. As a man I quickly received a 50 cent raise, at most a dollar over minimum wage,” he says.
Flores says for the women it was a completely different story.
“The women were making less money, even if they had been there longer,” he says. “One thing I noticed was the employers that hired the staffing agency would have these crazy expectations from the workers where they wanted them to do double the production that an individual would regularly do.”
Constant threats of asking the agency to send another person would come from the employer if the workers didn’t meet the demands.
“Bathroom breaks were out of the question,” says Flores. “Very petty things ticked them off.”
Because of the fear of losing their only source of income, women would usually not speak up.
“It was between getting mistreated or getting nothing,” says Flores. “Most people don’t wake up saying “Let’s fight for social justice.” They want to make sure they have money to feed their families whether it’s something they like or not.”
Aside from conditions at the workplace, women were also faced with the dilemma of child care while they were at work. Most could usually not afford it and had to miss work to care for the children at home.
“It’s a very sad situation,” says Flores. “But this is why we have to fight.”
One mother’s experience, Guadalupe Mendez, says the struggle raising a family alone has taken an emotional and financial toll on her life.
“There’s times where the situation gets very tight, there’s barely money for rent, for food, it’s difficult,” says Mendez.
Mendez, who has had two high-risk pregnancies, lives with her mother and three children after she left the father of her children for having an affair. She says her experience through the pregnancies was hard because of the depression she was going through, and eventually gave birth early to both of her babies earlier than expected.
“When things get difficult, they are my strength,” says Mendez. “I look at their little faces and think about the fighter I have to be.”
Mendez currently works with Minute Men Staffing Services, a staffing agency located in Southwest Detroit. She says the work environment treated her well, but she felt that as a woman she didn’t have as many advantages as a man would.
“The most I ever earned was $9.25 an hour,” she says. “Being a woman definitely plays a big part, I think. Men can do roofing and construction jobs. They also don’t have to deal with having children, for example.”
Currently in Southwest Detroit, the median household income is about $24,649, according to the City Data website. The percentage below the poverty level in Southwest Detroit was 40.1 percent, compared to the 40.7 percent of the overall city.
“I think as Latinos, we have a disadvantage at getting more jobs because we don’t know people or aren’t recognized enough,” says Mendez. “I’ve tried at Chrysler and other companies. If you don’t know anyone, you basically don’t get the job.”
One woman, Olga Gonzales, who sits by a building by the intersection between Michigan Avenue and Livernois Avenue, says she thinks the city should pay more attention to the area.
“If you look all around is, all the buildings are in bad condition,” she said. “This is a main street too. You see out-of-state cars all the time. What do you think people think when they have to come into this area?”
Gonzales, a native of Texas, spends most of her day on the street reading her Bible, she says. Her life on the Southwest Detroit streets began after leaving her husband, who was an alcoholic.
“I’ve been in this situation for two years,” she said. “I usually just try to find somewhere quiet to read, like maybe the McDonald’s down the street. Usually I’ll stay here though, because it tends to get loud in there.”
She says occasionally police will stop by and give her a hygiene package and make sure she is okay. During the winter time or at nights, she sleeps at her sibling’s homes around the area.
“It’s not scary living out here,” she says. “Everyone looks out for each other. People donate a lot and I’m not even asking for anything. I made $50 once just from donations.”
Gonzales says she has had trouble trying to get a vehicle, which her family has tried getting for her.
“If I had a car at least, things could be so much easier,” she says.
According to a report by Metropolitan Detroit Race Equity Report, the overall poverty rate for Latinos in Detroit as a whole was 39.8 percent. There are many organizations in the area doing things to help the community, with different ways to reach their goals such as food distribution or teaching them basic level courses for free in English to help get them jobs. Some of them include Michigan United, Southwest Solutions, and others.
“We can’t help one case at a time because if we do we will never get it finished,” Adonis Flores says. “It’s almost five million people nationwide. We really need to change policy and make big changes.”
(You can see all of our Detroit Journalism Cooperative coverage here.)
Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.